There are a lot of things that I like about the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the best spots at the Met is their famous collection of ancient Egyptian art. This collection contains some amazing pieces – not least of which is the amazing Temple of Dendur. Despite all of the large and important Egyptian pieces owned by the Met, a very tiny artifact has become beloved among Met-lovers of all ages – a small blue hippopotamus named William. William is the unofficial mascot of the Met, and all you need to do is visit the Met’s Museum Store to realize that he has truly become the symbol of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is also one of my favorite things ever!
As I was visiting the Met last weekend and did my usual round past William in Gallery 111, I started realizing that I don’t really know much about him…What was this little blue hippo’s purpose? Who did he belong to? (And why is his name William?) It turns out that William reveals a whole lot about Ancient Egyptian life, their belief system, and even their geography.
William is a statuette of a hippopotamus from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, dated to approximately 1981–1885 BCE. This statuette is small and well-formed with a brilliant blue body. It is made of a non-clay based ceramic pottery called faience. Although it is a depiction of a huge animal, the statuette is very small; it is only 11.2 cm x 20 cm and could fit into the palm of a hand. Aside from the disparity in the size of William versus the size of an actual hippopotamus, the form of the statuette fairly realistically depicts a hippopotamus.
Many of the aspects of William demonstrate an ancient Egyptian focus on the natural world, and particularly on the Nile River. Elements, such as the illustrations of river plants with which William is decorated, serve to demonstrate the importance and prominence of the Nile in the daily lives of Ancient Egyptians. The bright blue-green color and the illustrations of lotus blossoms and river plants that decorate his body are reminiscent of the shallow marshes of the Nile River, the place where Ancient Egyptian hippopotami would have lived.
Hippopotami are native to the Nile River and were a common feature of life around in the Nile in the Middle Kingdom. Although the William statuette depicts a docile (and even cute!) animal, hippopotami are not gentle creatures. Hippos are deadly animals, capable of killing a human without much effort. In a society such as Ancient Egypt in which people relied so much on daily interaction with the Nile, a dangerous hippopotamus would have posed a threat to livelihood when it came to those who participated in fishing, boating, and other water-based activities – and even to those who just lived and worked close to the Nile. The symbol of a hippopotamus would have provoked fear among Ancient Egyptians.
The Ancient Egyptian religion, and particularly their belief in the afterlife, is also evident in William. He was found in the tomb of Senabi II at Meir, an Upper Egyptian site about thirty miles south of modern Asyut, and he was part of Senabi II’s burial equipment. Ancient Egyptians’ preoccupation with the Nile continued into the afterlife – they believed that the deceased traveled along waterways on his way to the afterlife. Additionally, the Ancient Egyptians believed in continuity after death – that your possessions and body carry over after death, so anything you are buried with stays with you into the afterlife.
Senabi II was buried with William as well as with numerous pieces of boating equipment to prepare him for his nautical journey into the afterlife. The Ancient Egyptian would encounter hippopotami on the Nile in the earthly world and in the waterways of the afterlife. It is evident through an examination of William that three of his legs have been purposefully broken. This is meaningful because – like sculpting the hippo looking docile and in a small scale – breaking William’s legs weakens the hippo and ensures that he will not be a danger to the deceased as Senabi II makes his way to the afterlife. The defeated-looking hippopotamus was probably a totem for Senabi II to bring into the afterlife to ward off other would-be hippopotamus attackers and to bring Senabi II safely through the Nile.
William is not the only hippopotamus statuette of Middle Kingdom Egypt – I have come across similar hippopotami statuettes from the same era in the Louvre in Paris, for instance (that one is named Petit Noun!). The popularity of this type of statuette speaks to the significance of the Nile to Ancient Egyptians as well as the widespread belief in continuity after death. The symbolic nature of controlling the hippopotami by breaking his legs reflects the Ancient Egyptian’s lack of control of the Nile and need to feel dominant over nature.
Ultimately, William represents more than a hippopotamus – he represents the Ancient Egyptian’s preoccupation with all aspects of the Nile River, from its predicable flooding to the beauty of the marshes to the fear associated with the massive animals of the Nile and the afterlife. In every element of William’s aesthetics is an element of the Nile – its plants, its blue color, its animals, and its need to be controlled. When Senabi II was buried with William, he was essentially buried with the key to controlling the Nile River.
William was brought to the Met in 1917, though he remained an unnamed blue hippo until 1931. In 1931, an Englishman named Captain H. M. Raleigh gave him the name William in an article first published in London-based Punch magazine, and then reprinted in the Metropolitan Museum’s June 1931 bulletin.
You can view William any time in Gallery 111 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although he might be small and a bit hard to spot in the large gallery, don’t walk past him – he is one of the most fascinating and important pieces at the Met!
From Gallery 111,